With a formidable line-up of young talent, the future of Carnatic music holds out a lot of hope

Anxiety about the future, familiarity of the present and nostalgia about the past is a favourite parlour game in the classical arts world, especially Carnatic music. In politics there was the anxious refrain of “after Gandhi, who?” In sport it used to be “after Gavaskar, who?” or “after Pele, who?” Yet succeeding generations have unfailingly thrown up personalities, who have equalled or scaled even greater heights than their illustrious forebears and left an indelible mark on history.

But then where would we be, that too in the thick of yet another Covid-tainted Margazhi, without a bit of nostalgia, a bit of anxiety and a healthy dose of optimism about what the future holds? Contemporary public memory about Carnatic music generally tends to start with the era of recorded live concerts, which means the generation of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Musiri Subramania Iyer. Old-timers still harp on their music and the individual quirks that made each of them so distinctive. Yet, as great as these giants were, the generation that succeeded them is generally accepted to be the one that marked the golden era of Carnatic music as we know it today. An era dominated by the likes of Semmangudi, G.N. Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer and, more importantly, the rise of female superstars D.K. Pattammal, M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari. It was also the era of bold path-breakers like Balamuralikrishna and staunch aesthetic stalwarts such as Brinda-Mukta. And instrument wizards like T.R. Mahalingam, T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, and Palghat Mani Iyer. Towards the late 1980s and early 1990s, as this generation walked gently into the sunset, there was a lull marked by justifiable concern in the fraternity about the future of the art, assuaged by the likes of T.N. Seshagopalan and Sudha Ragunathan.

But the last 20 or so years have taught us that another brilliant generation that made its debut in the early to mid-1980s not only continued the tradition but was instrumental (pun intended) in the explosive growth and popularity of the art. Combined with the easing of travel and a tectonic shift in communication technology, this generation, comprising the likes of Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Vijay Siva, Sowmya, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Bombay Jayashri, was able to intelligently bridge distances and geographic boundaries for both performance and teaching.

Artistes such as U. Shrinivas, N. Ravikiran, Shashank and Ganesh-Kumaresh blazed a magnificent global trail, taking this music to exotic locations around the world; transcending language barriers with sheer instrumental melody.

Which brings us inevitably to today — the here and now — when we wonder what will happen to the art tomorrow in the wake of ever-shrinking attention spans and newer technologies that bring the art literally to our fingertips the instant we demand it. Will today’s artistes be able to communicate and sustain the sanctity, the nuances and the intent of the great composers as effectively as their predecessors? Essentially, is the art in safe hands? The answer to this query has to be a resounding, optimistic ‘Yes’, if one simply goes by the hard evidence, even if only of the past few years. About 10 years ago, a festival titled ‘Voices of Tomorrow’ was staged by my portal, The ARTery, with the support of this newspaper. The idea was to encourage budding talents by giving them a concert opportunity with seasoned accompanists at a noted venue. It was also one of the earliest events to feature live YouTube streaming, which at that time was a costly novelty. And who were some of those promising names? Bharat Sundar, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ashwath Narayanan, Aishwarya Vidhya Raghunath, Sriranjani Santhanagopalan, Vidya Kalyanaraman, and a bunch of others, all of whom have become primetime performers today. They are upholding a traditional and rule-bound artform even when buffeted by winds of change.

At any given point of time, the present holds the lead to the future. To secure that future is the responsibility of the sabhas and the artistes. The sabha ecosystem and the Season, much-maligned as they are, still remain the core talent-spotting mechanism. One can hope that once the pandemic recedes and corporate support for art returns to its old robust levels, sabhas will prioritise talent over box-office viability when deciding whom to feature. As for the artistes, it is essential they work on and develop individual strengths to find a niche that resonates in the listener’s consciousness and sets them apart from the sea of similar sounds that bombard us day and night in this technological tsunami. Overall, though, we can agree that the future is here, and it is in safe hands.

The writer is a Chennai-based arts presenter and photographer.



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